Photo essay: Britain's 1948 Olympians today

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To mark the London 2012 Olympics Katherine Green turned her camera on athletes who competed the last time the Games were held in the British capital. Here she explains why:

As a photographer I’ve always been interested in the quieter stories and people that I meet. The stories that are only unraveled after a little prying and more than one visits. But I was overcome by the modesty and incredible individuals that I encountered when I began photographing the 1948 British Olympics team in 2007.

I stumbled upon my first athlete almost by accident, as a result of another commission. Over the course of six years I went on to meet, photograph and interview many more and have been touched and humbled by what they told me. The stories are of great courage and modesty, and always accompanied by the wisdom that comes with great age.

The contrast with London now and in 1948 is stark; then it was recovering from war and people were adjusting to their peacetime lives; athletes weren’t paid and had to manage their training while eating rations and working full-time. Many had to hand sew their own kits and buy their own running shoes. For some, sport became their lives, but for many it was sideline that the demands of normal life rendered impractical.

Several stories standout in my mind: Denise St Aubyn Hubbard, a High diver, born in 1924. She grew up in Egypt, where she learned to speak Arabic, and to dive. Upon her return to the UK, she learned Japanese in six months and worked at Bletchley Park as a translator. She took part in the 1948 games as a High Diver, but dislocated her shoulder on the first dive. She pulled herself together and went on to dive again, later becoming the only female skipper in the Royal Navy Auxiliary Service. If that weren't extraordinary enough, she sailed single-handedly across the Atlantic at the age of 64.

Another brilliant one is Edwin Bowey, an Olympic Wrestler from Tottenham, for whom sport brought opportunities to travel and explore the world. After the Empire Games in 1950, he emigrated to New Zealand, becoming a lumberjack, then returning to London as a gardener. In the 1940s he discovered yoga, a passion which he has followed his entire life, and led to him travelling to India in his Sixties.

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Katherine Green's photographs are being published by crowd-funded publisher Unbound, unbound.co.uk/books; a touring exhibition can be seen at Scunthorpe, 20-21 Visual Arts Centre, until 16 June 2012; Luton, The Hat Factory, until 21 June 2012; London, Tokarska Gallery, 18 June – 21 July 2012; Rugby Art Gallery & Museum 02 July – 30 August 2012; Huddersfield 22 June – 07 July 2012. They will also be on show at Hackney Museum until 20 October 2012.

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